In December 2010 I received a call from Mayor Mike Bloomberg asking if I would like to have my name attached to the Queensboro Bridge (unofficially referred to as the 59th Street Bridge). If I agreed, he said he would announce the proposal the next day and submit it to the City Council. I had never contemplated such a tribute. I laughed and said, “Mayor, I would be honored.”
The mayor pursued the matter and on March 23, 2011, the City Council voted 38-12 to change the name of this classic structure to the “Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge.” I never lobbied members of the Council, thinking it would be inappropriate and probably harmful to the cause. I thought to myself, if it happens, it will be the highest honor the City could confer upon me. If it doesn’t, I won’t in despair throw myself off the bridge.
Between the time of the mayor’s proposal and the Council vote,Daily News reporters Matthew Bultman and James Fanelli spoke with Paul Simon about the bridge name change. (One of Simon & Garfunkel’s hits was “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy).” When asked if he could change the title to include Ed Koch, Paul replied, “It’s up to Ed.” It would have been inappropriate for me to request that of him. Now that the Council has voted affirmatively, it is enough. I will not make that request, but I certainly appreciate Paul’s offer.
The favorable Council vote was much higher than I expected. Why? In New York City almost every proposal is contentious. In 1931 the authority operating the Trans-Hudson Bridge then under construction initially proposed changing the name from Henry Hudson to the George Washington Bridge. A referendum on both sides of the river (New York and New Jersey) disclosed that a majority opposed naming it after George Washington. The authority ultimately named it after our Founding Father. Here in New York City, a poll showed that a majority opposed the name change for me. Hopefully, they will ultimately come around.
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn supported the proposed name change and spoke in favor of it. I believe her speech and efforts on my behalf carried the day. Important to me personally were those who voted affirmatively. They included a majority of the Council members representing the Borough of Queens, 10-4. A majority of the Black and Hispanic Caucus voted for the change as did a majority of the Progressive Caucus. My cup runneth over.
An interesting episode occurred on the day of the vote. New York City Comptroller John C. Liu sent a note to all members of the City Council. The letter was forwarded to me. It read as follows:
“Dear Colleagues: I heard on the news last night that the bill, to co-name the Queensborough Bridge after former Mayor Ed Koch, passed committee yesterday and is on the Stated agenda today. Forgive my late commentary on this issue. Try as I have, I’m unable to hold back.
“During my 2009 campaign for comptroller, Mayor Koch administered to me quite a tongue-lashing for my 2007 Council vote upholding a community board’s decision to co-name a street after the late Sonny Carson. Mayor Koch expressed his outrage that I would as a public official support such honor for someone he considered racist.
“When I was finally able to get a word in edgewise, I reminded Mayor Koch that some considered his own 1983 comments about building a prison in Chinatown to be racist. And that as a public official, I would not necessarily deny him a co-name honor because of the occasional poor choice of words during a decades-long record, as was the case with Mr. Carson.
“Thank you for your time.”
I did not respond to Comptroller Liu’s letter at the time, but I wondered to what he was referring. He did not include the remarks that he believed were offensive and comparable to those of Sonny Carson.
Carson was a racist pure and simple who directed his inflammatory rhetoric and actions toward whites and Asians. When David Dinkins was mayor, Carson led boycotts against two Korean vegetable stores in a black neighborhood, violating a judge’s order on the distance picketers had to keep from the stores so that prospective shoppers could enter them. As a result, the stores had to close. On one occasion Carson, a known anti-Semite, said, “I am anti-white. I don’t limit my ‘anti’ to just one group of people.”
In earlier days before the Internet and Google, it would have been difficult to locate material and examine what he was referring to. Now it is easy. Using Google you type in Ed Koch, Chinatown, Prison 1983, and a 2001 article appears written by Andrew Hsiao entitled “Chinatown in Limbo. Will Asian Americans Ever Elect a Councilmember of Their Own?”
Mr. Hsiao was reporting on a contest for a Council seat covering the Chinatown community. In a lengthy article, his reference to me was:
“For the remarkable fact is that despite an Asian presence virtually as old as the city itself, New York has never elected an Asian American to the City Council or to any citywide office. The upshot, as then mayor Ed Koch put it inimitably in 1983 (while dismissing a massive Chinatown protest against a proposed jail): ‘You don’t vote, you don’t count.'”
With respect to the prison, the facts were that in Chinatown a holding prison called The Tombs already existed for those awaiting trial. It had to be enlarged because crime was on the rise. Understandably, the Chinese community objected to the enlargement of the prison.
No community in New York City has ever, to my knowledge, welcomed a prison in its community or, in this case, an expansion. Nevertheless as mayor, presiding over a city that had huge financial problems, there was no question that from every conceivable point of view, particularly the need to save money, enlargement rather than building a new prison elsewhere was required.
A major cost in our prison system, involving millions of dollars annually, is transportation of prisoners to the courthouse for innumerable hearings and trials. The Tombs is immediately adjacent to the Criminal Courthouse, allowing for easy and prompt production of prisoners by a secure bridge eliminating transportation from elsewhere.
My quote “you don’t vote, you don’t count,” even in the context of this article does not deal with the issue of where the prisons should be located. It is an observation on the need to vote to influence any and all decisions made by elected officials – the City Council, the Borough Presidents, the Comptroller and the Mayor.
The Asian community was large enough to elect representatives to the City Council and State Legislature. By not registering to vote in the numbers they represented, the community failed to elect anyone to the City Council until 2001.
That year, John Liu was the first Asian American to be elected to the City Council. Over the years the Asian community, like others, had organized politically – perhaps heeding my advice offered in 1983 – and won an important place at the political table. In 2009, Liu ran for City Comptroller and won in the general election with 76 percent of the vote.
So now to Liu’s other remarks concerning his support of designating a street name change honoring Sonny Carson. In Liu’s election bid for Comptroller, he asked if he could meet with me to discuss his campaign. I said of course and met with him at my law firm.
He made his case stating his qualifications and record and asked for my support of his candidacy. I asked him why he had voted for the Sonny Carson street name change honoring a racist. He replied that the community board where the name change would occur had voted for it. I said that pre-World War II, the Yorkville area of Manhattan was overwhelmingly occupied by Nazi supporters who, if given the opportunity, would have named a street for Adolf Hitler. I asked him if he would have felt compelled to carry out the community’s desire. He said that was different.
The City Council at the time overwhelmingly rejected the Sonny Carson name change which would honor Carson. I did not support Liu’s candidacy for Comptroller.
I tell this story because I believe that those who engage in racism and make false charges of racism as Liu did are to be denounced.
I will forever be appreciative of the generous support of Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Speaker Christine Quinn and the City Council for making it possible for me to sing while riding over the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge, I’m “feelin’ groovy.”